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Joe Locke's Love Affair with Language

Dan Bilawsky By

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On the surface it's not so easy to spot the common thread unifying the greater fabric of Joe Locke's work. Since arriving in New York City in 1981, and emerging as a notable leader on record in the early '90s, this much-vaunted vibraphonist has developed into a protean performer and composer. Duo sessions with pianists Frank Kimbrough and Kenny Barron, a collaboration with vocalist Kenny Washington, dates co-led with pianists David Hazeltine and Geoffrey Keezer, an album with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra, straight-ahead sounds, left-of-center excursions, and long form works all figure into his discography, making it all the more difficult to spot said common thread. But it's right there, sewn into the music in subtle and not-so-subtle ways: the influence of language—poetry, literature, words, even a simple remark uttered in passing—on the very different medium of music.

For Locke, a metaphor can serve as muse, a turn of phrase can provide the DNA for new musical life, and a poem can be the key to unlocking the door to deeper meaning. And with the release of Love Is a Pendulum (Motéma Music, 2015)—perhaps the most personal and emotionally charged work that Locke has yet produced—that relationship between words and music is fully illuminated.

Love Is a Pendulum

Like a pendulum, the Barbara Sfraga poem that inspired this work slowly swung back and forth in Locke's mind, wearing a permanent groove into his psyche. And Locke has the author herself—a multifaceted writer-lyricist-vocalist who's worked with everybody from pianist Fred Hersch to vocalist Mark Murphy—to thank for it. "I've been friends with Barbara for a long time, and I bumped into her at the The Iridium," Locke recalls. "She gave me this little book called The Subway Series, poems of Barbara Sfraga. I said 'Thank you,' and I took it, and I had it by my nightstand. I started leafing through it one night, and this poem—'Love Is a Pendulum'—really got me."

It's a powerful poem that views love through five metaphorical lenses, each drawn at the outset of a new stanza and undergoing complete examination and dissection in the lines that follow. These metaphorical statements—"Love is a pendulum," "Love is the tide," "Love is perpetual motion," "Love is a planchette," and "Love is letting go"—would go on to serve as compasses for Locke during the album's lengthy development process. "It started gestating around 2010," Locke remembers. "I began with 'Love Is a Pendulum.' I wasn't trying to be programmatic, and I wasn't really thinking about the poem until I was partway into the A section of the composition. Then I said, 'Hmm, this is something I've never really played before—this harmonic sequence, these chords, these arpeggios.' I said, 'This is new to me,' and I just became aware then that her poem had been swimming around," he continues. "So I went back and read the poem and said, 'I want to make this into a suite.'"

The result—curious-sounding and gently probing in certain places, firm and aggressive in others—got the ball rolling, but it didn't define the project, as Locke rejected a one-size-fits-all approach in responding to each stanza. In the case of "Love Is the Tide," he was interested in taking a more programmatic, picturesque tack. "I was thinking about waves crashing and pouring and receding, and the power of that. In the poem, [Sfraga] says 'Love Is the Tide / A pumping, surging undertow that will take you down, pop you up / And drench you in its power.' And when I think about the emotional power around love, I think of the blues and the strength of the blues. So I wanted to have all of this undercurrent or activity—the undertow, if you will. But on top of it all, it's the blues." It comes through loud and clear in the steady, grooving flow that pianist Robert Rodriguez, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, and drummer Terreon Gully lay down beneath Locke and saxophonist Rosario Giuliani's relatively simple melody line.

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